I recently had the good fortune to be able to attend a musical in New York City that was entirely in Yiddish, a presentation of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. The play, Gimpel Tam, is based on the short story, Gimpel The Fool by the late Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Because my parents, a”h, Polish Holocaust survivors, spoke Yiddish at home, I pretty much am able to understand conversational Yiddish – if not speak it as easily. However I am convinced that when it comes to expressing one’s feelings or opinions about anything under the sun, Yiddish is one of the best languages to do it in. Yiddish terminology is in a class of its own in getting the message across. Just the word “oy,” for example, can capture and summarize what in any other language would take quite a few.
And indeed, the character of Gimpel Tam elicited a pained oy from me – for he is a person that one can greatly admire yet despise at the same time. A thoroughly gentle soul, you can’t help but be impressed by his honesty and his ability to trust his fellow man – a trait that he naturally transposes on everyone else. Just like a liar automatically thinks he is being lied to when someone tells him something – so too Gimpel assumes everyone is honest and truthful – because he is.
Thus when the townspeople tell him to run out of his bakery – that Moshiach has come and his dead parents are looking for him, he drops what he is doing and runs out. At first, Gimpel is skeptical – he has been the butt of many previous jokes, but again – as he has always done – he takes them at their word. According to his way of thinking, theymust be telling the truth – for why would they deliberate lie or mislead him? Of course, the townspeople could be hallucinating, but – he tells himself – “Can the whole town be crazy?”
Gimpel soon finds himself in a situation with serious consequences; the local shadchan wants to arrange a match for him with a woman of ill repute. Gimpel, who is very religious, expresses his shock at the matchmaker for even thinking of setting him up with Elke, who has an out of wedlock son. He in turn reprimands Gimpel for doubting his good intentions, telling Gimpel he is mistaken, that the little boy is Elke’s brother, and they are orphans.
Gimpel believes him because if the shadchan says that it is so – then it is. Why would he lie to him?
In a later scene, Gimpel accuses Elke of being unfaithful, for with his own eyes he saw her with another man. She lashes out at him, chiding him for confusing a shadow with a human being. The pious Gimpel accepts her version of what he knows he saw. He is honest and so she must be.
However, I believe there is another more worrisome reason for his denial; it is so much easier to believe lies than have to deal with an unpleasant reality. Closing one’s eyes to a difficult truth takes so much less effort. Denying a horrific reality means there is no need to do something about it – which often entails much misirat nefesh (backbreaking or soul-wrenching endeavors).
And so Gimpel lives his life believing everyone’s tales, seeing only good or, sensing evil, deliberately “sticking his head in the sand.”
On one hand, giving people the benefit of the doubt is a very noble trait. In fact, we are told of the sage, Rav Zushya who only saw the positive in people. It is said that he once saw a Jew oiling the wheel of his wagon while he davened. Instead of chiding him for working while praying, Rav Zushya looked upward to Heaven and said to G‑d,” Look how wonderful Your children are. Even when they work, they daven to you!”
Yet denying reality, and instead justifying someone’s actions, can result in very dire consequences. Refusing to acknowledge the “facts on the ground,” deliberately “spinning” a situation staring you in the face and falsely re-interpreting the obvious, can be self-destructive and fatal.
On a personal level, for example, a woman who is frequently battered by her spouse but stays with him because she accepts his version of “the truth” – “she had it coming,” “it’s her fault,”is doing a “Gimpel” and allowing herself to be destroyed emotionally, spiritually and often physically.
Not only individuals can act like the good-hearted, trusting but ultimately foolish Gimpel. A nation that stares its enemies in the face but sees “friends” and “peace partners” despite their repeated rhetoric and actions to the contrary; a people that eagerly eats the blatant lies and falsehoods fed to them time after time – despite the bitter pills of carnage they have had to swallow; a country that emulates the noble, but extremely foolish thinking of Gimpel Tam – risks becoming a global joke, at best, a tragic footnote in history – at worst.
Gimpel Tam opens Thursday, December 4 at 8:00 p.m., and plays a limited engagement through Sunday, December 28, at The JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Avenue. Written and directed by Moshe Yassur, score by Radu Captari, and musical direction by Zalmen Mlotek. Tickets are currently on sale by phone at 800-595-4849 or online at www.folksbiene.org.